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Montgomery Advertiser

Business-Jan. 13, 2003

'Big Fish' means big business

Workers on the Columbia Pictures film rack up expenses as shooting nears

By Brett Clanton
Montgomery Advertiser

Don Grobe never really knows when the calls will come or how big the orders will be.

"One day, they wanted 100 gallons of paint in 20 different colors," he said. "Lots of reds, yellows and oranges."

Another day, it was $2,000 worth of pool paint.

It makes no difference to Grobe, who manages paint sales for New Look Decorating on Atlanta Highway. As long as the set builders for Tim Burton's "Big Fish" keep placing orders, he's willing to accommodate them.

The movie people have been his best customers in months.

Early on, the Alabama Film Office estimated that "Big Fish" would have a $25 million economic impact locally. But then the movie people started spending.

"I bet it's more like $40 to $50 million now," said Brian Kurlander, director of the Alabama Film Office.

The earliest spending ripples from Burton and his team began spreading through the community last fall and came from obvious places -- rental cars, hotels, restaurants.

But as the first day of filming drew near -- shooting starts today in Wetumpka -- expenses from massive set-building projects began producing receipts from lumber companies, metal workers and artists. Hotel bills became condo rents. And restaurant tabs became catering contracts.

Arne Schmidt, executive producer of "Big Fish," said it is the policy of Columbia Pictures, the film's underwriter, not to comment on the size of a movie's budget.

"If I told you, I'd have to kill you," he said.

Schmidt would say only that the budget for "Big Fish" and its local economic impact would be "substantial."

It might be bigger still if Montgomery had more businesses geared specifically to film industry work.

The movie has had to import artists, painters, technicians and set builders from Atlanta, Los Angeles and elsewhere. But area businesses are well-represented, too, on construction, transportation and creative crews.

Take Silas Bros Contractors, a Montgomery construction company that has helped clear and prepare a property at Jackson Lake, where the movie is building a huge, 1950s-era downtown set. Company President Wade Silas said the business comes at a good time. During the winter months, he said his business usually falls off by 40 percent, a decline the "Big Fish" jobs have helped him avoid this year.

"It's been a real blessing," he said. "They've been great people to work for, and they pay 50 percent up front."

Tony Titus, assistant manager of Alpha Lumber in Montgomery, said his company has delivered about 10 truckloads of wood to "Big Fish" crews and hopes the relationship will open the door for other entertainment industry projects.

"You never know. These guys may talk in the industry," he said.

Elsewhere, Bruce Murchison, owner of Packaging Machinery, a custom metal fabrication shop in Montgomery, said the odd jobs he has done for "Big Fish" have been more interesting than profitable. Murchison has built an elevator for a hospital set and steel supports to go inside "magical" trees that will move and grab actors during a scene in the movie.

Building the pieces, for Murchison, is sort of a consolation prize. When he tried out for a role in "Big Fish" as a farmer, he didn't get it.

"I guess I didn't quite have the farmer look," he said.

But his work and the work of other local businesses is not going unnoticed.

"As far as the local vendors go, we've been treated great," said Schmidt.

Ranking especially high on the movie team's list of favorites are the restaurants and shops along Fairview Avenue in Old Cloverdale, said Eileen Peterson, the film's publicist. El Rey Burrito Lounge, Tomatino's Pizza Bake Shop and Cafe Louisa are regular stops, and Sinclair's restaurant "has become our little commissary," she said. "Big Fish" Director Tim Burton also has used the Capri Theatre to run daily film reels. Members of his staff are regulars at Mind and Body Holistic Spa around the corner, and the administrative office has had private parties at Vintage Year and Jubilee Seafood Co.

Further proving their fondness for Cloverdale, Burton's team last week laid plans to shoot several scenes of "Big Fish" at Huntingdon College in March. "Big Fish" already had a homebase at the old Cloverdale Junior High School building, which the college took over in August, and had been employing Huntingdon students as interns for months.

"We feel like this is our movie," said Huntingdon spokeswoman Su Ofe.

"Big Fish" crews are scheduled to shoot all this week in downtown Wetumpka, and not every business there is as thrilled about the interruption.

"I think it's going to be a challenge," said Candy Lockamy, a typesetter at Image Printing, which will have its entrance blocked and its sign removed while filming is in progress. But the tiny shop also is seeing an early windfall in business from movie officials, who have commissioned a couple dozen temporary signs for downtown shops.

For her part, Dee Goheen said she sees opportunity in the inconvenience. The owner of the recently opened Billy Dee's Steak and Seafood Restaurant in downtown Wetumpka, Goheen agreed to rent her building to the crew, who will set up a temporary homebase for the film shoot this week.

When asked if the movie people made it worth her while to fork over the restaurant for a week, Goheen said: "Not really. But it's good publicity for us, so why not?"